WHAT HAS SOCIETY COME TO WHEN RELIGIOUS VIEWS ARE PRESENTED POSITIVELY ON PUBLIC TELEVISION?
My colleague Benoît Côté has already addressed, in a noteworthy manner, the article published by a certain Mr. Brisson in the Huffington Post. I published his response to Mr. Brisson on my blog, as a guest blogger, here. If you understand french, I would highly recommend reading his article. I also wish to say something about the documentary and Mr. Brisson's response to the documentary. I will, however, be coming at it from a slightly different angle, so though I agree profoundly with Benoît Côté, our responses do not seem to overlap in any significant way.Due to the importance of the subject that I will be discussing, this will be one of the few blog posts that will be published in both French and English (French edition will be published later).
Recently RDI showed a documentary entitled Les Soldats de Jésus (The Soldiers of Jesus), which sets out to explore the protestant evangelical movement that is gaining a certain importance in Quebec. The documentary sets out with the purpose to understand, from the point of view of those who would call themselves evangelicals, what evangelicals believe, how they live, the role of the pastor, and what they consider to be religiously and morally important. Interestingly enough, the “authority” that the documentary relies on for explaining the important “evangelical” doctrines that distinguish evangelicals from other religious movements is not, himself, an evangelical. He, Frédéric Dejean, points out what he considers to be the important differences between evangelicals and other “Christian” movements, you might call them, “evangelical distinctives”: (1) The elevation of the Bible as the only authority, according to a literal interpretation, (2) The importance of a personal conversion, that is the choice of the individual, and (3) The importance of evangelism in the life of the believer. He also claims that it is this literal interpretation of the Bible that leads to the rejection of evolution, and a number of certain moral views.
To be entirely honest with the reader, I, personally, did not plan on watching the documentary, however, the day after the documentary was broadcast I began noticing a number of interesting responses to the documentary. A large number of evangelicals were thrilled that, finally, for the first time ever, the media represented the evangelical movement as the evangelicals understand it. Rather than focus on the “black sheep” or fringe movements that call themselves evangelical, the documentary sought to portray the evangelical movement as it is perceived by the majority of those who are practicing evangelicals. Some of the evangelicals that I spoke with told me that they were disturbed by certain elements that were brought up in the short (45 minute long) documentary – elements that, as a philosopher and theologian, I would never touch on unless I had at least an hour in order to properly explain the doctrine in question. There was another type of reaction that I came into contact with, a reaction that, to be totally honest, can only be characterized as militant atheism, and a rhetorical attack on evangelicalism. A friend of mine sent me an article published by Pierre-Luc Brisson, at the Huffington post. The reaction of Mr. Brisson is, to be honest, the only reason why I even considered watching the documentary. Mr. Brisson’s response to the documentary requires, itself, a response that points out his biased, uninformed, and unfair, treatment of evangelicals.
In this blogpost, though I may refer to certain elements that are presented in the film, I am writing with the purpose of pointing out a very dangerous ideology that presents itself in Mr. Brisson’s response to the documentary. I will begin with a short outline of his article, and then I will point out a number of important principles that we must keep in mind whenever we wish to interact with any point of view, whether it be religious, philosophical, scientific, etc.
Mr. Brisson begins his article with a brief explanation of what the evangelical movement is. It seems that his understanding of the evangelical movement comes entirely from the documentary, as, in his short article, he simply does not give us any new information. Anybody who watched the documentary, and then read his article could immediately jump to the third paragraph. From the third paragraph to the end of the article Mr. Brisson engages in what is, to the unbiased reader, quite obviously, a rhetorical attack on the documentary and on the evangelical movement. “Wait”, someone might say, “but he brings up some important and true facts.” I will come back to the “facts” that Mr. Brisson points out in the course of this article.
There are a number of important principles that need to be taken into consideration whenever we approach, and attempt to understand, any point of view. Looking at these principles will help us to put Mr. Brisson’s article, and the documentary, in perspective. First of all, in order to truly understand any movement, ideology, philosophy, religion, or even a simple opinion, you must, absolutely, do two things. First of all, you need to listen more than you talk. That is, you need to hear or read (in articles, interviews, books, documentaries, etc.), what the people holding the view in question (the members of a movement, the politician in a political party, or a philosopher advocating his view) think, how they see their movement (philosophy, political party, etc.), and what they see as being the logical consequences of their movement, ideology, politic or philosophy. This is just the only appropriate way to approach any view, whether it be religious, political, moral, scientific or philosophical. For example, if I want to know what Heidegger thinks, then the first thing I need to do is read Heidegger. You don’t start your research by reading philosophers that disagree with Heidegger. You don’t disagree with Heidegger based upon hear-say. You cannot rationally disagree with Heidegger until you’ve understood Heidegger. You seek to understand, in his own words, what Heidegger thinks. This goes for any position whether it is political, religious, scientific, philosophical or otherwise.
The second thing that you need to do in order to truly understand a position is to stay away from the fringe movements, the extremists, and the fanatics, that associate themselves with the position in question. To represent a philosophical position by presenting the views of a person (even if they associate themselves with that position) that the original philosopher disagrees with is simply not honest. For example, to represent a political party by pointing out one of the members who was caught engaging in some questionable act is a rhetorical move used to throw dirt on that political party. It is not an honest engagement with the beliefs and positions of that movement, because, more than likely, the reality is that the political party would not condone the actions of that individual. In the same way, to throw dirt on a religious position by pointing to fringe movements, groups, or people, that associate themselves with that religious position, that have been involved in questionable actions, is a rhetorical move that seeks to dismiss the religious position based on actions that the core group would not condone, rather than engage with the important doctrines of that religious group. This is what our reputable Mr. Brisson does when he brings up the law-breaking “evangelical schools”, when he mentions what he perceives (in what I would consider a romanticized perspective) as the political agenda of the evangelical movement, and when he mentions what he perceives as necessary evangelical scientific and moral positions (denial of scientific fact, evolution, as well as positions on abortion and homosexuality). Mr. Brisson, and dear reader, if you are going to criticize any position, be it philosophical, political, or religious, please, concentrate on the central tenets, and not on certain views that are debated even amongst those who claim to represent that position.
The second principle that we need to keep in mind when approaching, criticizing, or engaging with any point of view, is that you cannot contradict, criticize or oppose in any way a position that you do not understand. How can you measure whether or not you understand the position in question? You must be able, in your own words, to explain the central tenets of that position to a person whose beliefs would be considered as representative of that position, such that they agree with your explanation (of course, and this is a purely rhetorical remark, that would you mean that you have to actually talk to the people who hold that position, and listen to them as they explain their position). I would refer the notable Mr. Brisson to a book on how to have a true conversation, How to Speak, How to Listen, written by the well-known, non-evangelical, philosopher, Mortimer J. Adler
The third point is that we need to remember that everybody interprets the world differently, based upon a number of different factors. Therefore, if I may permit myself a little bit of humor, it is, in general, a bad idea to generalize a position and apply it to all those who associate themselves with that position. There are always those who, claiming to adhere to a certain position, either, see things differently than the majority, or who simply do not follow the guidelines that the majority follow. We normally refer to this type of member as a fringe group. You cannot use the fringes of any position to discredit the views of that position. For example, many scholarly atheists do not agree with the tactics of the militant atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists, and do not wish to be labeled under the same banner as the New Atheists. So, it would be unfair, biased, and dishonest, to use Richard Dawkins as the model atheist. Furthermore, most of the atheists that I know, and for whom I have a great deal of respect, would be offended if I told them that Hitler is the model Atheist, and that you can’t have a balanced view of atheism unless you include the fact that many self-proclaimed atheist political leaders have been the cause of some of the greatest massacre’s in world history. Any such claim is purely rhetorical, unless it can be proved, based upon the central claims of Atheism that such actions follow necessarily from the central tenets of atheism. In the same way, it is a rhetorical move, to point out, as our reputable author Mr. Brisson does, the law-breaking “evangelical schools”, what he perceives as the political agenda of the evangelical movement, and what he perceives as necessary evangelical scientific and moral positions. As a matter of fact the central tenets of Evangelicalism include the teaching that evangelicals are to obey the laws of the country in which they live, pay their taxes, and be law-abiding citizens. Anybody doing otherwise, even if they claim to be evangelicals, is not acting according to evangelical teachings, and, therefore, cannot be used as a representative of evangelicalism, at least in that issue. As for the political agenda, the central tenets of evangelicalism have no political agenda. Rather, evangelicals are encouraged to be law-abiding citizens that seek, through the means that are given them by the country in which they live, to live peaceful lives in accord with their moral principles. As for the evangelical views of science, Mr. Brisson seems to enjoy painting a false picture of what evangelicals think about science. The fact of the matter is that there is no “official” view on the relationship between the Bible and science; these are subjects that are currently debated, quite freely, in evangelical circles. So, to brand all evangelicals as people who reject scientific facts based upon literal biblical interpretation is pure rhetoric, and false. I think that, probably, most evangelicals would agree that it is bad practice to reject scientific facts based upon what the Bible says. Rather, they would ask, is this scientific fact, indeed a fact, and, is it properly interpreted? Furthermore, assuming that it is a fact, why should an atheist scientist’s interpretation of that fact be accepted over the interpretation of, say, a Christian scientist? Remember, “facts” are interpretable. So, to be more to the point, it should be pointed out that many evangelicals do not deny evolution, but accept it as fact, and interpret the Bible accordingly. However, on the other hand, to claim that evolution, understood as the process by which all the various species, that are now present on earth, developed out of one original ancestor through natural selection and genetic mutations, is a “fact” is pure rhetoric. Evolution understood as defined above is still highly debatable. Furthermore, science, understood as the empirical study of natural, repeatable, phenomenon, cannot prove evolution scientifically. Evolution, as defined above, can only proved through an inductive process which resembles the process used in archaeology. But, of course, this type of process is highly interpretable. Therefore, it is a rhetorical move, to claim that evangelicals reject scientific facts such as evolution, designed to create, in the general public, a disdain for evangelicalism.
A fourth principle for interacting with a religious, philosophical, political or ideological position is the importance of the public forum. Mr. Brisson seems to think that it is inappropriate to present the evangelical position, as it is understood by the majority of evangelicals, in a public forum. This attitude betrays a major presupposition that Mr. Brisson seems to hold. Namely, he seems to think that religious views should be considered as less important than private opinions, specifically, his own private opinions. Apparently he has inadvertently bought into relativism. Simon Blackburn, a well-known philosopher, in a book on the question of truth, begins by saying, “There are real standards. We must fight soggy nihilism, skepticism and cynicism. We must not believe that anything goes. We must not believe that all opinion is ideology, that reason is only power, that there is no truth to prevail. Without defences against postmodern irony and cynicism, multiculturalism and relativism, we will all go to hell in a handbasket. So thunders the conservative half of us – of each of us. But perhaps the thunder and conviction betray an anxiety. We may fear that there is another side of it, that our confidence is dogma, that our bluff may be called. There are people who are not impressed by our conviction, or by our pride and our stately deportment. They hear only attempts to impose just one opinion.” In this way he wakes us up to the fact that some people don’t care about truth, all they want is for everybody to get along. Truth is, indeed, a problem. The problem with truth is that it is exclusive. Either there is a God or there is not. There is no middle ground here. You could be agnostic about the existence of God, but this is not a middle ground. All you are saying is that you don’t think that we can know which of the options is true. The problem is that one of the two options is true, and the other false. Mr. Brisson seems to think that the claims that evangelicals are making, should not even be allowed to be discussed. But wait, evangelicals are making claims about reality, that if they are true, would seem to carry grave consequences in society and in the individual lives of every person in the world. It seems to me that this type of religious position cannot, should not, be ignored. Not because it is true, but because people think it is, and are publicly claiming that it is. Therefore, it needs to be debated publicly. Blackburn, in the same book, in discussing William James’s pragmatism notes that pragmatism leads to the privatization of belief. “And it is this privatization of belief that leads to relativism: my belief ceases to exist in a public space, up for acceptance or rejection by all who pay attention. It starts to be a matter of ‘my truth’ or ‘your truth’, like my ornaments or your ornaments, which serve fine if they are to my taste or yours, and about which we can be indifferent to the taste of others.” Mr. Brisson seems to think that evangelicalism, and other religions, should be squashed, and not brought up for honest discussion in the public forum. I would argue that the most dangerous religion, ideology, philosophy or political movement, is not the one that is publicly presented and debated, but, rather, the one that is not made public, which not debated publicly, which is not open to intellectual opposition. The reason why cults are so dangerous is that they keep their central tenets hidden from the public, and don’t reveal them to their members until they have reached a certain level in the cult. Evangelicals don’t do this. They wear their faith on their sleeves. They are quite open and willing to have their central tenets debated in the public forum. So why not let them? If their claims are found to be false, then evangelicalism will begin to sink into oblivion. The only way to truly get rid of any position is to debate it openly and to show that it is false. However, if you’re going to debate any position publicly, then you need to keep in mind the principles that I have been outlining above. The central tenets of the position need to be presented, and defended, by those who represent the great majority (not the fringe or extremist movements).
In the final paragraph of the article Mr. Brisson claims that this documentary was an intellectual insult. Now, based upon the principles that I have enumerated above, I would have to disagree with Mr. Brisson. The documentary portrayed evangelicalism as the evangelicals themselves see it. Therefore, it is in fact an intellectually honest documentary, and the first step in a public examination of the central tenets of evangelicalism. Rather, what is insulting to the intellect is presenting fringe movements, and the black sheep of a position, as if they are representative of that movement, without explaining that the great majority of those that hold the position in question disagree with the claims and actions of the fringe movement. What is insulting to the intellect is the raising up and destroying of straw men as if one had explained and demonstrated the falsity of a position. What is insulting to the intellect is painting an entire movement, position, ideology or religion with the same brush, without noting the many differences within the movement. It is also intellectually insulting to criticize the aesthetic elements of the presentation of a position rather than to interact with the central tenets of that position. In fact, any philosopher who criticized the presentation of another philosopher based upon the lighting, the clothing of the philosopher, and the way he or she did their hair, would be laughed out of the room, and their career would be on the line.
This documentary, and Mr. Brisson’s response to the documentary, have brought up an important question for our society today; one which I mentioned above. What place should religious views have in the public forum? My response to this question is that we should be dragging (figuratively speaking), the primary representatives of all religious views, philosophical positions, political ideologies and scientific view, etc., into the public forum. For our own social well-being, we should be openly debating all claims to truth. It is not intellectually honest to reject a truth claim prior to hearing its best defense of its central tenets.
There is not enough room in this article to explain the nuances of this type of interpretation. Needless to say it is frequently misunderstood, as is evident in the interview, with Raymond Gravel and Réal Gaudreault, that took place on Radio Canada the day before the documentary in question was shown. (Cf. www.radio-canada.ca/audio-video/pop.shtml#urlMedia=http://www.radio- canada.ca/Medianet/2012/CBF/MediumLarge201212101006_3.asx.)
http://quebec.huffingtonpost.ca/pierre-luc-brisson/evangelistes-quebec_b_2278108.html (accessed December 12, 2012).
Just for fun, I would like to point out that my insertion of the words “quite obviously”, is a rhetorical move. Coupled with words “the unbiased reader”, I create within the reader a certain reaction. Most people want to read and understand something in an unbiased way. So, by saying that a certain truth is obvious to the unbiased reader, I am touching a certain desire in the reader. Now the reaction to this type of rhetoric could be positive or negative. That is, negatively, the reader might simply assume that I am right, because, “it is quite obvious to the unbiased reader”, and they are unbiased readers, so it must be true. Another negative reaction is to dismiss the entire article because the reader considers themselves to be unbiased readers, however what is claimed to be obvious was not so obvious to them, and therefore the article is worthless. The only positive reaction that we should have to any type of rhetoric is to examine the claims, so as to see whether or not they are true. I enjoy the use of rhetoric, so long as it is not used to destroy the credibility of other authors. It is quite useful for presenting valid and true arguments in a convincing manner. However, rhetoric should never be used to attack the character of a person, or in an attempt to discredit (regardless of the truth) a position. Rhetoric is the art of convincing people.
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen (New York : Touchstone, 1997).
Simon Blackburn, Truth : A Guide (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2005), xiii.